Spring Into Fall (Stillwater Diary)

Forsythia, Stone Ridge, NY, 9/17/16

Forsythia, Stone Ridge, NY, 9/17/16

Even if I liked forsythia better, even if the plant were a hydrangea, it would have been obvious that the unruly bush needed trimming.

As I considered its north and west sides, and whether or not to let the leaves turn before pruning this summer’s exuberant growth spurt, I spotted bits of yellow and red in the green. A few very late or (even more unsettling) a few very early flowers were keeping company with a few seasonally appropriate leaves.

I’ll trim when the branches are bare.

Forsythia, Stone Ridge, NY, 9/17/16

Forsythia, Stone Ridge, NY, 9/17/16

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Film. Hit. Phenomenon. Pet Rock.

Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, NYC, 7/11/99

Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, NYC, 7/11/99

I photographed Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez for the first time in April 1999. Their film, “The Blair Witch Project” had been a stunner at Sundance a few months earlier and editors and writers at The Village Voice were intrigued. Then, as the July opening approached and the buzz around the film was getting deafening (kind of like the noise of a chain saw), we did another shoot with Dan and Ed, now for the Voice’s cover, and a feature (shot on Polaroid 665) that included the three actors, Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard.

I had worked alone with the filmmakers in the spring. (Well, we’d also had lots of the Blair Witch beautiful/creepy stick figures–I still have one.) This time the studio was full of people–Meg Handler, the Voice’s photo editor (and my good friend), art director Ted Keller, hair and makeup artist, assistant, publicists. We hung the painted backdrop and held the rented real branches (with fake pasted-on leaves) in place with C-stands. It was Sunday, July 11, Meg’s birthday. My photo of the directors was on the cover of the Voice (with the portraits of the actors, semi in character, inside) on Wednesday, July 14. “The Blair Witch Project” opened at the Angelika on Friday, July 16 at midnight and the world witnessed the birth of a monster. (“The Blair Witch Project,” created for around $60,000, famously went on to make $250 million globally.)

The latest installment of the legend, “Blair Witch,” (directed by Adam Wingard, written by Simon Barrett, Myrick and Sanchez credited as executive producers) is not the original. But what could be? “Found” documentary footage and a viral internet campaign were new and exciting in 1999. But the new film is horrifying–and I mean that in the best possible way–making great use of the expected shaky cam, jangly and crashing sounds, music (composed by the director), fast cuts, jarring video artifacts splashed large across the screen.

James (James Allen McCune), a college student, was four (as was the audience this film is targeting) when his sister Heather disappeared in the Black Hills Forest near Burkittsville, MD, with her friends Josh and Mike. Long-obsessed with finding Heather (he says, “closure and answers”), James is cautiously hopeful when his online alert is triggered by newly uploaded grainy footage containing the briefest glimpse of a woman resembling Heather in a ruined house in the woods. He sets off to meet the man who discovered and posted the video, with three friends, Peter (Brandon Scott), who remembers the search for Heather, Ashley (Corbin Reid) and Lisa (Callie Hernandez), a film student who supplies sophisticated gear–earpiece cameras, a Canon DSLR and a drone.

The four naifs go into the deep, dark woods, guided by Lane (Wes Robinson), screen name, Darknet666, a menacing local (his home decorating scheme features a wall dominated by an oversized Confederate flag) with an old DV camera. His girlfriend, Talia (Valorie Curry), blonde with purple highlights, quietly tags along.

Of course things rapidly go wrong. Crossing a cold stream, Ashley gouges the sole of one of her feet. (Her bloody wound later briefly supplies an “Alien” moment, but the tantalizing development is dropped). Night descends and plunges the group into total darkness. An evil presence bears down (a bear would be good news), occupying the night. After minimal and fitful sleep everyone awakens to discover that standard and elaborate Blair Witch figures dangling from trees have them surrounded. Terrified that the legend is real, the six frantically try to retrace their steps and escape.

“Blair Witch” opens this evening nationwide. Click for 360º web VR experience.

Joshua Leonard, NYC, 7/11/99

Joshua Leonard, NYC, 7/11/99

MIchael C. Williams and Heather Donahue, NYC, 7/11/99

MIchael C. Williams and Heather Donahue, NYC, 7/11/99

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Leo Saved From Drowning* (Stillwater Diary)

Leo and Ryder, swimming hole, Stone Ridge, NY, 9/9/16

Leo and Ryder, swimming hole, Stone Ridge, NY, 9/9/16

Leo, standing in the water, looked up at me. I’m trained, and threw the tennis ball across the swimming hole toward the big, flat rock–not that far (I don’t have a mighty arm). He swam easily but had difficulty getting his mouth around the ball. Three times as he tried to chomp down, the ball sprung away. He succeeded on the fourth try and started swimming back. He was slow and low in the water. Suddenly and simultaneously in slow motion (the way I remember other horrifying events) he slipped under the Esopus.

Mark was a few feet away and scooped him up. Leo’s eyes were rolled back and his tongue was protruding from the left side of his mouth. Our 14 1/2-year-old Lab was floppy and I thought he’d had a heart attack or stroke. Mark held him up and flipped him upside down (Leo weighs 85 pounds but love fuels superhuman strength in a crisis) to drain out water and then put him down on the bank. We did CPRish. Time continued to stretch but I suppose it was maybe a minute or two until he was fine. I wasn’t, and started to wail.

We assumed that Leo had been extra tired from the weekend. Our favorite kids, Jonah and Violet, the most dogged ball throwers, had visited, and Leo and Ryder took full advantage of people willing to endlessly toss tennis balls over land and water. But we also knew that his back legs have been losing strength and unwilling to risk a repeat, bought him an XL red life preserver from Kenco. The vests were up a double-height flight of stairs which, with coaxing (verbal and crunchy), was doable for Ryder but Leo needed assistance. On the way down, we held onto the preserver’s handle to prevent Leo from stumbling and gently slid him down the stairs.

Leo, with no memory (or negative) memory of his underwater adventure, was eager to swim and retrieve. And took to his personal flotation device like a Lab to water, and didn’t ask if we thought it made him look fat.

Leo, Esopus Creek, Stone Ridge. 9/10/16

Leo, Esopus Creek, Stone Ridge. 9/10/16

*Thanks (and apologies) to the great Jean Renoir from whom I cribbed my title.

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Author! Author?

Jeff Feuerzeig and Laura Albert, NYC, 6/17/16

Jeff Feuerzeig and Laura Albert, NYC, 6/17/16

The literary sensation that was JT LeRoy, who wrote two heralded works of fiction about his life as an abused, drug addicted, teenage truck-stop prostitute with HIV, imploded on January 9, 2006. In a piece in The New York Times, Warren St. John revealed that the author of the books was Laura Albert, a 40-year-old Brooklyn native, living in San Francisco with her husband, Geoff Knoop, and son, Thor, and that JT LeRoy was no realer than Holden Caulfield.

Intense outrage followed as many of JT’s fans, bold-faced names (some of whom had viewed JT almost as a mascot) were furious at what they saw as a bald-faced lie. Cooler heads were few: notably Jon Stewart who wondered why people were surprised that fiction writers wrote fiction, and Courtney Love who offered Albert what she saw as a sure path to redemption: “I’ll take you on Oprah.”

Absent from the controversy over the decade-long deception was Laura Albert’s voice, “the voice I wanted to hear,” says filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig, “so I reached out to her.” Albert screened Feuerzeig’s great 2005 documentary (which took top honors at Sundance), “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” a portrait of a gifted musician and artist who came to terms with his mental illness. The film, and that Feurerzieg “was Jewish and he was punk rock,” (which to Albert meant unconventional) made her feel safe with letting him tell her story.

In his compelling, stranger-than-fiction new film, “Author: The JT LeRoy Story,” Feuerzeig uses Albert’s subjectivity to “seek a deeper truth,” having her speak directly to the camera and through her lifetime trove of archival materials (photo albums, early writing, Super 8mm home movies, photos, audio and videotapes).

Albert survived a difficult childhood of abuse and eating disorders and was institutionalized as a teenager. She wrote stories and JT LeRoy wasn’t the first male character she channeled. For three years as an adult, she called Dr. Terrence Owens, a San Francisco helpline therapist, and identified herself as Jeremiah Terminator, 17, homeless, and struggling with AIDS. Encouraged to write as therapy, Albert, in persona, eventually sent the work to writers she admired and Ira Silverberg, Dennis Cooper’s agent, seeking critique and advice.

“Sarah” was published in 2000 and Albert was unprepared for the sensation created by it and “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things” (2001). She could do phone interviews as JT LeRoy (she was skilled at created personas, using voices and accents, having supported herself doing phone sex). But as a 35-year-old woman, overweight with wavy hair, she couldn’t pass in person as the character she’s called her “avatar,” created to allow her to “say things she couldn’t have said as Laura Albert.”

Eager to, as Feurezeig says, “surf the wave of JT’s success, because it was validation for the art she had created,” Albert birthed JT 3D, the “real life” version, incarnated by her husband’s younger half sister, Savannah. And Albert, to keep the story going (and to keep all of the strands of the story straight), convincingly slipped into her newest character, Speedie, an English musician and JT’s ubiquitous assistant.

“I’m not a hoax, I’m a metaphor,” Albert says in the film. Feuerzeig offers, “There’s no doubt that she’s a complex mind who’s brilliant on the page…a one-of-a-kind storyteller who took her fiction way off the page.”

“Author: The JT LeRoy Story” will open on Friday, September 9 at Film Society of Lincoln Center‘s Francesca Beale Theater (Q&As with Jeff Feuerzeig on Saturday, September 10 and Sunday, September 11 at 4:30 pm) and Landmark Sunshine Cinema.

My shoot with Jeff and Laura was one of this summer’s best. The studio was filled with energy, ideas and laughter (and a raccoon penis bone pendant). Thanks to all.

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Long Time Coming, Long Time Gone

Stone Ridge, NY, 8/29/16

Stone Ridge, NY, 8/29/16

Summer’s gone, again. And although the calendar says the season doesn’t end for more than two weeks, holding on now is like trying to hold water in my hands. The air already feels different, the light too. Leaves on the maples on the slope between the lawn and the Groverkill are not turning colors, exactly, rather it’s like the green is draining out.

But today is more than the day we designate as the end of summer. It’s Labor Day. Last week, speaking in Warren, OH, Vice President Joe Biden (whom I miss already), said, “The Economic Policy Institute just put out a 57-page report that wonks like me end up reading… Here’s the conclusion of the paper: If organized labor was as strong today as it was in 1979, the whole country would be doing better” and non-union workers would  be earning about five percent more. With the decline in unions, these workers lose $133 billion annually.

Nudged (shoved?) by Bernie and his supporters, Hillary Clinton evolved to favor raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour (indexed to inflation), which is included in the Democratic platform.

With the (big) exception of the  press screenings and the run of the New York Film Festival (September 30–October 16), I have no particular attachment to the  fall and hope the 63 days between now and  November 8 have summer speed. Vote Clinton/Kaine and down ballot Democrats to take back the Senate and the House (vote Zephyr Teachout, NY19), and state legislatures held by Republicans.

Kerhonkson, NY, 6/25/16

Kerhonkson, NY, 6/25/16

Kingston, NY, 7/2/16

Kingston, NY, 7/2/16

Kingston, NY, 6/4/16

Kingston, NY, 6/4/16

NYC, 7/20/16

NYC, 7/20/16

Stone, Ridge, NY, 7/31/16

Stone, Ridge, NY, 7/31/16

Red Hook, NY, 8/7/16

Red Hook, NY, 8/7/16

Stone Ridge, NY, 8/17/16

Stone Ridge, NY, 8/17/16

Schodack Island State Park, Schodack, NY, 8/18/16

Schodack Island State Park, Schodack, NY, 8/18/16

Stone Ridge, NY, 8/22/16

Stone Ridge, NY, 8/22/16

Dutchess County Fair, Rhinebeck, NY, 8/27/16

Dutchess County Fair, Rhinebeck, NY, 8/27/16

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Two Seasons in Seven Days

Elizabeth Callahan, Otego, NY, 2/20/16

Elizabeth Callahan, Otego, NY, 2/20/16

It was unseasonably warm, 62º, when I arrived in Otego on February 20 to photograph Elizabeth Callahan, a well-known translator of Tibetan Buddhist texts. She and I had postponed from the previous Saturday, when it had been breathtakingly cold, the temperature never breaking out of single digits.

I had been assigned by Liza Matthews, the amazing art director of Lion’s Roar magazine (which had recently changed its name from Shambhala Sun) to shoot portraits and environmental photos of Elizabeth in and around her house, where she meditated, where she worked.

Elizabeth’s 1809 farmhouse was set back from the small country road (designated a county highway). It had been a strange, nearly snowless winter in upstate New York and the ground was bare. Her pond, where she often meditated, was shiny and frozen and chard and kale were sprouting in her large hoop house.

It was a wonderful day, shooting indoors and outside with Elizabeth (who was welcoming, warm, fascinating and funny) and her two dogs Dogen and Tilo. The article, “Dharma 24/7,” by Zen teacher and priest Koun Franz ran in the July issue of Lions’ Roar (excerpted by permission):

The history of Buddhism, by and large, is a story of full-time practitioners. It stars the monastics, priests, yogis, and hermits who left behind what most of us call “ordinary” life to dedicate themselves solely to Buddhist practice and study. Laypeople, meanwhile, are nearly invisible in the traditional Buddhist narrative. A few entered the lore…but they are rare, celebrated explicitly as exceptions to the rule.

Today in the West, the story is reversed. The vast majority of Western practitioners–and most well-known Buddhist teachers–are lay men and women, trying to keep a commitment to practice while simultaneously devoting themselves to family, work, and participation in the culture. Monastics and other full-time Buddhist practitioners are the exception in the West, trying to make their way in a society that doesn’t necessarily support–or even understand–their path.

Monasteries in China and Tibet used to house up to ten thousand monks and nuns at a time. Those days are behind us. Yet every age, including ours, has its renunciates. They are the ones who give up what the rest of us won’t or can’t in order to place spiritual practice at the center of their lives. They remind us of the hard choice between “’having it all” and having what you most deeply want…

If you were Elizabeth Callahan’s next-door neighbor in the Catskills, you might imagine she’s simply a quiet person who works from home.  And you’d be half right. But the other half is more interesting.

Like many people, Callahan discovered Buddhism in college. But unlike most people, that discovery catapulted her directly into intensive,  full-time practice, a path from which she hasn’t veered in thirty-five years. “I didn’t have a clear idea of ‘I want to be a monastic’ or ‘I want to be a scholar,’ nothing like that,” she remembers. “But I saw very quickly that if you want to get into it fully, you have to make that your life’s path.  And for that, you need in-depth training.”

In Tibetan Buddhism, the traditional path of intensive practice begins with a three-year group retreat, after which one can be called a “lama.” Every day for three years, retreatants wake up at 4:00 a.m. and spend all day meditating, studying, and listening to teachings…

Callahan did one three-year retreat at a Buddhist center in upstate New York, and after a year in India, returned to the U.S. to do another one…When her second retreat was finished, she decided not to move into a dharma center…“I was more interested in practicing and studying, so it was more conducive to live on my own or with my partner.”

Her ten years of meditation practice had involved an intensive study of Tibetan. “Nothing was translated in those days,” she says (so)…translation was a natural fit…“Combining the scholastic study with practice–it’s like two wings of a bird,” Callahan says. “The self-benefit part is that it allows you to study something in-depth in a very intimate way…But you hope that you’re doing it to serve others, to communicate the dharma to them.”

Alone in her home in the Catskills, Callahan is on her own time, though she structures her translation work as a Monday-to-Friday, nine-to-five job… She describes her path as “very slow and very internal”…“If you want to do something fully, then you have to give a lot of time to that, and you can’t do other things. You can’t do all the things you want to do.”

Why does someone step away from the comforts of intimate family relationships, or the implied freedom of the American Dream, to make a life of our own design, into the tight container of a tradition not of one’s own creation–not just for a weekend or a month, but for years, even a lifetime?…When pressed, Callahan resists the question of why. “Why do this at all?” she asks. “That’s hard to answer without sounding rather banal.” But she tries to explain it, and in doing so speaks clearly of why anyone chooses Buddhist practice, in any form: “If the Buddhist vision captures our mind, our heart, our imagination of what can be, if it lights up our mind and sets it free somehow, if we see in it a path that increases qualities and traits we appreciate, then we dive in.”

Elizabeth Callahan, Otego, NY, 2/20/16

Elizabeth Callahan, Otego, NY, 2/20/16

Elizabeth Callahan, Otego, NY, 2/20/16

Elizabeth Callahan, Otego, NY, 2/20/16

Elizabeth Callahan, Tilo and Dogen (under the desk), Otego, NY, 2/20/16

Elizabeth Callahan, Tilo and Dogen (under the desk), Otego, NY, 2/20/16

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Real Life, Dream Life

Nanni Moretti, NYC, 9/25/15

Nanni Moretti, NYC, 9/25/15

Had I not loved my mother profoundly and had she not died 13 years ago (seems like forever, seems like yesterday), I would still have been mesmerized and moved by Italian auteur Nanni Moretti’s beautiful film “Mia Madre.”

Margherita (Margherita Buy, wonderful), a complicated middle-aged film director is struggling, moving between creating the reality of her latest film, a political story about striking factory workers, and her real life, which seems like a dream, dominated by the serious illness of her beloved mother (Giulia Lazzarini), a scholar and professor, who is hospitalized.

The production is troubled. Margherita’s star, Barry Huggins (a very funny John Turturro) is American, self-absorbed and obnoxious, unable to remember his lines or adjust to his fake mustache. Her actors look at her quizzically when she offers a favorite bit of direction about both playing the character and standing next to the character. Her crew members are pushy and have too many opinions.

Filmmaking hours, long and irregular, prevent Margherita from spending enough time visiting and attending to her mother and meeting with the doctors. Her brother Giovanni (Moretti) who has recently taken a leave of absence from a job he won’t resume, devotes himself to their mother but doesn’t judge Margherita, understanding she’s conflicted. And he understands the prickly areas of her personality.

While Margherita is always surrounded by people, personally and professionally, she seems very alone. She has recently left her boyfriend, an actor with a part in her film, whom she mistreated, and a gap has opened between her and her teenage daughter Livia.

The narrative occurs on several levels–Margherita’s reality, dreams, thoughts and memories–and it’s very effective when they’re initially indistinguishable, and when they seem to blend.

The all-consuming upheaval caused by the major trauma of a dying parent is expressed by Margherita and Giovanni using an identical sentence: “I don’t understand anything anymore.” She thinks it during a press conference for her new film as she’s offering her well-practiced statements about her work, which suddenly seems meaningless. He says it to her, as they sit together outside the hospital, trying to accept what seems unreal (and unbearable)–that their mother has very little time left.

The morning after their mother has died, a former student passing through Rome visits at her apartment. He’s shocked and saddened and tells Margherita and Giovanni how important Ada had been in his life. It’s the first time we hear her name–she’s always been “mamma”–and get a glimpse of the woman beyond the loving and beloved mother who had a reality larger than her children knew.

“Mia Madre” will open on Friday, August 26 at Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the Angelika Film Center, in Washington, D.C. at the Avalon, and in Los Angeles at three Laemmle Theatres. A nationwide rollout will follow.

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